The press attaché at the U.S. embassy writes in response to my post to alert me to an embassy statement disputing Azerbaijani press accounts of U.S. Ambassador Richard Morningstar’s earlier comments. The correction comes 15 days after the story first appeared in the Azeri press. While the Azeri news agency has now removed the original report in English, it is still available in Azeri.
I will certainly take Ambassador Morningstar’s word against that of a regime that is less than democratic, but the episode highlights well another problem with American diplomacy: The tendency of undemocratic regimes to utilize visits by American diplomats and officials to imply endorsement where none is intended. The Azeris believed they could use Morningstar’s visit to the semi-autonomous Nakhchivan region to suggest American support for the decidedly undemocratic regional government. Likewise, when Secretary of State Clinton visited Armenia, she met with only government officials and gave the opposition a cold shoulder; that was a message that both the Armenian government and its opposition heard loud and clear, even if it was not a message Clinton intended to transmit. It is probably not a coincidence that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi sought to eviscerate any remaining checks and balances immediately after Clinton visited Cairo and heaped praise upon the Egyptian leader.
If Senator John Kerry really wanted to be secretary of state (or defense), perhaps he should not have referred to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad as “my dear friend” on several occasions, a hopefully unintended endorsement that made staffers cringe (as related by one). The problem is bipartisan: Iraqi Kurdish journalists—some of whom have survived assassination attempts and others who have been thrown in prison for their writing—lambaste Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain for the praise they heap upon Masud Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdistan region’s increasingly authoritarian leader.
Engagement is not cost-free. Because dictators often twist words, it is even more important for American diplomats first to speak with moral clarity, never issue false praise under the guise of politeness, and always tie meetings with those in power to meetings with those in democratic opposition groups. Alas, careless diplomacy too often sets the American brand back years.